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#390 Listening vs. Hearing: The View from the Other Side

August 5th, 2020

Richard Marker

A couple of years ago, my accumulated professional careers crossed the half-century mark. Knowing that it has been an untypical journey, a number of people asked if I was planning to write an autobiography. While I don’t believe a full autobiography is warranted, I have written a pamphlet size retrospective built around lessons learned. It will be published sometime this Autumn.

While writing, I was reminded of a number of influential episodes, some of which are applicable to current developments in the philanthropy world. This piece emerges from one of them. Watch for additional posts that will address others.

“Strategy” is the constant among my five careers. Whether in the non-profit or for-profit sectors, or, in the last quarter century in the philanthropy arena, being a strategist has been the core competence that ties it all together. I learned very early on that the elegance of a strategy, the completeness of the data, and the rigor of the process are often for naught if there is not attention to implementation. There is much to say about this, and I have written and taught about this extensively. But a current discussion in our field has underscored, once again, how crucial the implementation stage is in achieving any effective strategy. In this case – the difference between listening and hearing.

The anecdote: I recently had occasion to be reminded of a project I did fairly early in my career. In my first full-time post-graduate school position, I was a young associate chaplain/faculty at Brown University. Toward the end of my first year [’71-72], a graduating senior came to meet with me. He told me he had a beef: He said that there were matters of identity that he and his friends had never discussed and, now, on the eve of graduation, realized that he wishes they had. He told me that he thought that the only person he knew who could have facilitated that much needed conversation was me.

Now, to be fair, while it was a nice compliment, there were undoubtedly lots of folks who could have facilitated that conversation; his was probably more a comment on the still existing divide between faculty folks and students even in the early 70’s. It did challenge me, though, and I subsequently began a practice that I continued for my remaining years there. [I left in 1982.]

At the beginning of every Spring semester, I would invite graduating seniors to my home for small group teas. Over the years, I learned a lot. The most sustaining lesson was this: whatever perceptions I may have had about students’ commitments and involvements based on what I observed proved to be only coincidentally aligned with what students said about themselves. I might see a student doing some particular program or activity almost every day, yet those very students would describe themselves as only very marginally connected; other students might talk about how important a project was to their undergraduate life, even though he or she might be totally invisible to others involved.

In other words, self-perception is not always aligned with how others see us. The data alone was misleading – or at least insufficient. It was a lesson that has served me well in every subsequent career, but none more so than in my journey in the philanthropy sector over the last quarter century.

Our field is fraught with opportunities for misperception. It historically has been built on a power imbalance – one side wants, the other side has. Those who want financial resources need to convince those who give that they should give to them. Built in is a challenge of perceptions. Organizations that want resources from funders try to determine what the funder really wants to hear, what will give them a tactical advantage, what is legitimate hyperbole vs dubious exaggeration, and what will give a funder the confidence that their articulated missions will best be fulfilled in supporting your organizations. Funders have our own set of desiderata: yes we want to assess all of the items presented by those seeking our funds, but we also have our own independent considerations: where does this request fit within our own priority system, how does supporting this organization or project align with our own risk tolerance, how does this request compare to other similar requests on our docket, what is the internal push and pull among family or trustees or staff, and more.

Those requesting funds rarely know all of these internal considerations – meaning that there is an endemic disconnect. They are limited by their perceptions – extrapolating from the knowable [grantmaking history, articulated missions] to the “best guess.” Proposals, whether written or oral, all reflect a best guess of what the funder really wants, but since there are so many subjective factors, there is always, by definition, the unknowable.

Some funders have made our own mistakes – that of assuming that we can take the guess work out of our decision making. It is a little less true today than it was a few years ago, but for a while, funders thought that we could apply a rigorous due diligence and metric system to make the “right” decisions. That too is wrong – and also for an important endemic reality: we fund the future, and the future is never guaranteed. We may choose to reduce the risk by supporting only well-established organizations, or well-developed programs, or sector leading executives, but…. COVID-19 only proves that nothing is assured. Moreover, the lower the risk, the lower the likelihood that creative change can occur. If, as many funders claim, we want our money “to make a difference”, it is important to remember that “difference” has to mean something will be different.

If that is true, we too have an obligation to learn how to extrapolate beyond that which is presented. But how?

This is where our field is moving in a healthy direction. There have always been some in our sector who have made it safe for potential or existing grantees to tell the whole story in honest ways, but not most of us. There have always been some in our field who know that those on the ground are more likely to understand real needs, especially in the realm of direct service/at risk populations than we. There have always been funders who have an understanding that funding the future means that some things we fund will [and should] fail, but too many still don’t have the tolerance for failure or the importance to endorse its legitimacy.

Many of the most welcome changes in the current climate in our field are attempts to address exactly these things. Initiatives such as “Trust Based Philanthropy” or “Listen4Good” or “Nothing about us without us” or the ongoing work of CEP are all very welcome attempts to rebalance. How do we as funders make it safe for grantees to tell us honestly what they need? How do we make sure that the direct stakeholders are the real beneficiaries of our intended largesse? How do we allow grantees to take enough risks toward much needed change that some will assuredly fail? These, and numerous other initiatives are pushing us as funders toward redressing gaps in our own practice and affect. The primary responsibility in making these adjustments is ours.

It is also true that not every nonprofit is guiltless. All of us on the funder side have seen organizations that have chosen to hide essential information, to reject thoughtful support as inappropriate intrusion, to be blind to their own failures, and to view us funders as inscrutably “different than us.” We as funders may have the primary responsibility to readjust our behaviors but we are not alone in this. Non-profits too need to learn how to listen – to words that may appear patronizing or distanced or judgmental or overly jargon-y, often presented in settings that are intimidating but are usually well-meaning and more often than not intended to be constructive.

All of us, yes every single one of us, has filters that align what we are told with “our own” reality. The real challenge, then, is not only listening but also knowing how to hear. Since affect and tone and setting and implicit biases [on both sides] can so easily distort, knowing how and what to absorb from feedback and shared information is a constant challenge.

As we know from so many other contexts, collecting data may be hard; interpreting that data is much harder. Creating strategies may be daunting; implementing them is much more so. And, listening may be hard; hearing is much harder. For all of our benefit, it is a skill worth learning.

#389 – The Trust Factor Continued: Conditions for Change

July 21st, 2020

Richard Marker

This was written but not published before Rep. John Lewis’ sad passing. He was an inspiration to so many of us – and a model of how an authentic change agent can be both inside and outside the system. His convictions were transparent; his courage exemplary; his influence will be felt for a very long time.

It may be helpful to read #388 prior to reading this piece.

Wow. Two consecutive zoom meetings yesterday left me a bit shaken. There was no overlap of participants or of stated agenda. But, unintentionally, they affirmed very troubling and consistent world views.

As readers know, I do whatever I can to keep references as anonymous as possible. Suffice it to say that both groups had participants from throughout the United States. The make-up of the two groups was very different, and that difference is relevant to the remainder of this article. In one, about half of the participants were people of color; in the other, all were Jewish. This piece, though, is not specifically or primarily about Black-Jewish relations in the USA but about some surprising and unsettling things I heard from both discussions.

First some notes on “change”. My own view is that the precondition to any meaningful systemic change in the USA is having a different person sitting in the Oval Office after this year. No reader should be shocked to read that since I haven’t been very subtle about my feelings. But here I want to expand on that as a backdrop to my response to the comments at the two meetings:

It is not only that I think that we have to restore a commitment to Constitutional roles, responsibilities, and expectations, or that we have to come closer to a commitment to a government of, by, and FOR those who live in this country, or that we have to reestablish that there is such a thing as knowledge [and that includes knowing what is a gray area from what is simply true or false], or that we have to recognize that we are a part of the world [neither “above” it or exempt from it], or….

No, it is not only these things, but it is also about a baseline of respect, dignity, humanity, integrity, honesty – to put in a word, “culture”. In other words, reestablishing all of the things mentioned in the prior paragraph alone won’t eliminate racism or economic inequities or unacceptable growing class divides or xenophobia. Without a cultural shift, none of the endemic and systemic issues can effectively be addressed. And until we remove a mean, mendacious misanthrope from his dangerous seat of power, such a national culture shift will be virtually impossible.

For me, these two paragraphs represent the sine qua non of change, but not the sufficiency to bring about change. I have seen this in every organization or business with which I have had experience or knowledge. There may be many strategies for change, but none, absolutely none, work without a commitment that emanates from the top.

Even that cultural commitment alone is insufficient. Most real work is done on the local level, both politically and metaphorically. Implementation is rarely effective if it is only top down; it must be bottom up. Enfranchisement matters. Empowerment cannot be token. Inclusion must not be rigged. This is the hard, day-in day-out work. It is what makes the difference in the sustainability of a business; it is what makes a difference in the sustainability in a non-profit organization; it is what makes the difference in the character of a foundation; and it is what makes the difference in the social compact that underlies any and every governance system.

These perspectives were challenged on both of the calls.

On the first, several very successful and articulate African-Americans largely dismissed my focus on voting and government change as the sine qua non as an indulgence of a [well-intentioned] white liberal. If there is voter suppression, what is the point of getting out the vote? If people of color are gerrymandered to guarantee less representation, why bother? If systemic racism continues no matter which party is in control, why waste one’s energies choosing between flawed choices even if one is less flawed than the other?

They argued, passionately, that the only change they can buy into, and are willing to take risks for, are where one has some control – of oneself, of one’s own business, of one’s own chosen friends and colleagues. As far as I could tell, none was a supporter of or advocate for the current administration; and I suspect all will choose to cast their vote for a President Biden. However, they were not willing to say that this is where any of their energies should take the highest priority.

This didn’t totally surprise me because of my direct experience with Census2020 advocacy. In addition to being involved in a regional task force, I attended three different conferences which included leaders of various at-risk and historically undercounted communities. Depending on which conference, some of those leaders were local, some national. The concern, to remind you, is that for every undercounted person, there will be underfunding and under-representation for the next 10 years. The Census is supposed to be anonymous and complete. However, the current administration tried to politicize it in a move that was rejected by the Supreme Court – to require a citizenship question. Given the history of this administration toward immigrants of all sorts, it should not surprise you to know that that request made many unwilling to fill out the census form at all.

The Census Bureau and many other advocates for a complete count turned to trusted intermediaries, leaders in those communities, to persuade their constituents to complete the census. What I heard in all three of those conferences was deep-seated skepticism about whether they could trust the government to honor the constitutionally mandated anonymity. How could they go to the line to advise their followers when they themselves were dubious? The system is so broken that, even at the risk of long-term financial and government representational losses to their communities, the risks to individuals within those communities was existentially greater.

If I understand the issues raised in the first zoom call, spending all of one’s energies devoted to simply improving a system so clearly broken is a fool’s errand. Sure, the current president is flawed [to put it more generously than he deserves], but voter suppression didn’t start with him, nor did gerrymandering nor redlining nor police violence nor racial profiling. Will Biden’s victory simply allow the majority of well-meaning liberal Whites to relax their [our] political advocacy? Will token policy modifications toward policing silent the currently loud voices for change? Will people accept the important but ultimately only symbolic removal of statues of traitors or sports teams’ names representing racist stereotypes rather than do the harder work of rooting out the endemic inequities?

I wish I could say that the cynicism is misplaced, but I share it. Where we disagree is whether out country can withstand another four year of autocratic, anti-scientific, isolationist, and antinomian leadership and whether we have the luxury of dismissing both candidates as flawed, even if unevenly so.

The second call was also quite a bit sobering. While my own professional life once placed me squarely within the American Jewish establishment, for the last 18 years, I have been almost fully an outsider, other than my own personal behaviors and a couple of boards on which I sit. If you are my age, you remember the bond between most of the leadership of the Jewish community and that of the Black community. It is often symbolized by the now iconic photograph of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marching alongside my own revered teacher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. That bond has been tested over the years, for both legitimate and illegitimate reasons, but it is very striking to realize that, for most young people, that is ancient history and says nothing about real lived experiences. Jewish self-concern appears insular to [many] one-time allies. Relative silence [by many] to the tremendous spike in overt anti-Semitism in the USA in the last few years appears ominously isolating to many Jews. To most African Americans, Jews are simply one other privileged White subgroup; to White Supremacists, Jews are a despised race no different than those of Black or Brown or Red skins. [It is true that there are Jews from many racial, ethnic, and national backgrounds, but that is beside the point to Supremacists and perhaps to many African Americans as well.]

The conversation with the Jews painted a dismal affect, and there was a more palpable divide about their preferred presidential candidate. Just as the first call emphasized the need for localism over some vague national culture change, so did this one. For many, it built on a concern that both sympathy and empathy toward Jewish concerns are in shrinking supply on the local level. For some of the Jews, the only issue that mattered was policy toward Israel; since this country is so fragile, they postulate, it is the only metric that counts. For others, [and I put myself in this second camp], a weak and isolated USA that provides no leadership or moral voice to the world is hardly in a position to be a meaningful long-term ally to Israel. Moreover, many of us reject the concept of “single issue” concerns in the Jewish world. Many, probably most, of us, care deeply about the destruction of the environment, the erosion of civil liberties, the absence of health care for all, the existence of a permanent under-class, the prevalence of racism, the hostility of xenophobia. And, indeed, many Jews have marched, petitioned, written, contributed, and in other ways expressed these values. Yet, I fear, far too many non-Jews, especially in government, assume that the Jewish community is “single issue” with perhaps a few outliers or holdovers who associate themselves with the “justice” causes. Even though that perception is statistically wrong, perception, in this case, becomes reality.

Has our American reality become so atomized and clannish that too many of us who have a huge amount at stake in the outcome of the November elections dismiss that it will really matter? Have too many of us decided to hunker down, as if the public weal is as contagious as COVID-19? Has trust – in institutions, public space, or even the future – so eroded that what history will surely view as the most important election in this era has become a second-rung priority for massive segments of our society?

History has not looked kindly upon any nation that makes the choice of hopeless surrender. I hope and pray it will not be ours.

#388 Is Dialgoue Possible? The Next Challenge for the Philanthropy Sector

July 8th, 2020

Richard Marker

A fellow member of the National Speakers Association publicly posed a sincere question? An Ausssie expat now living in the USA, he asked how it was that so many of us had no difficulty at all dialoguing with adherents of other religions than our own but seemingly had no ability or interest in dialogue with political adherents with whom we disagree. After all, he suggested, even if we have no intention or expectation of proselytization, our religious worldviews and beliefs are surely quite divergent. Why is that different than political discourse?

As one who has devoted a very substantial amount of volunteer time over several decades to inter-religious dialogue on local, national, and international levels, this question is not a trivial one. I am probably as guilty of my colleague’s characterization as anyone so let me respond – first to the easy part and then in a bit more depth.

The easy answer is that interreligious dialogue has become well developed. Not everyone in any religion believes in it which means that, almost all the time, our dialogue is with those who, on some level, accept “the other”. None of us is so naïve to think that we can fully change hearts, minds, beliefs, and experiences of all of our own co-religionists, even if we have learned to model a different approach and accept that there are “Truths” in every Tradition, while not compromising on the “Truth” of our own. And it is successful because enough religious leaders around the world now affirm the legitimacy of dialogue so that no one needs to apologize for participating in such settings.

The easy answer in the political arena of 2020 is that the divide is so large that vast swaths of those on either side of the political divide deeply reject the “Truths” that others believe. This divide has been underscored by the Pew Research Center that has demonstrated that the vocabulary, the world view, and the perceived role of government are more divided than at any time since they began their work. Until there is leadership that models that the work of inter-political dialogue can and should happen, there is little public space for or acceptance of the kind of successful dialogue that has characterized the interreligious space for several decades.

That was the easy answer, but hardly sufficient. About the challenge of interreligious discourse: Those of us with a long history of this never take for granted that new participants know the ground rules. Dialogue is not disputation. It is not a debating society. It is not a competition for whose history is more credible, or more worthy of sympathy or condemnation. It is not a quick fix. And it is not for those whose knowledge of their own tradition is inadequate for an informed exchange.

The purpose of dialogue is to advance a common agenda, when it might exist; to make sure that participants have a keen empathy for their counterparts and their religion; to understand their respective vulnerabilities; to understand normative behaviors and authoritative positions even as they may have evolved over time; and to create a level of mutual trust so that when inevitable challenges emerge, there is a context for deciding what to do about them.

None of this is easy; not every interreligious dialogue survives those periodic challenges or the inclusion of new participants with no institutional memory. Differing adjudicatory and authority systems often lead to limits of how far a conversation can proceed. But many dialogues do thrive. [I am happy to share real transformative experiences with leaders of many religions to any of you who ask – but those stories are not the subject of this piece.]

The reason I articulate both the challenges and ground rules is precisely because almost none of those ground rules is present in the current political climate. It is not that such dialogue is impossible in theory – only that the deterioration of civility and trust has made it fully elusive.

It is also important to state again what was implied earlier: one cannot or should not dialogue with everyone. Dialogue means that we assume the best intentions of the other, the integrity of the other, and the conviction that something better can come of it. Under the current national leadership by one who behaves in a treasonous manner, who violates the oath of office to uphold the Constitution, who behaves as a race baiter, and whose personal animus to any opposing view can only be understood as beneath contempt, one cannot assume that there is much opportunity for dialogue at that level prior to the November election.

My own place along the political spectrum is thus clearly not very hidden, but I am old enough to know that American political history has a long tradition of talking across the aisle, of political leaders who disagreed but didn’t demonize, of genuine struggles with endemic challenges even if informed by different conceptual perspectives. This is not to romanticize or idealize the past as much as to say that there is a basis for affirming that authentic political dialogue has existed – and can again.

One of the key challenges in dialogue that transforms is that it must find resonance among leaders at the top and also a sufficient number of adherents on the grass roots level. There can be very meaningful and sincere dialogues at either level, but unless both exist, the impact will end when the door of discourse opens to the outside. I imagine that somewhere in America, in safe and secluded places, some people are talking to each other with a modicum of calm and reason even though their political stances are diametrically opposed. I am not sure where these places are even though we regularly hear pleas for that to happen. Most – not all – of those pleas, I regret to say, seem to be from people who have chosen to act and say “a plague on both your houses” rather than willingness to genuinely engage. Nevertheless, I would like to think that somewhere those discussions are happening by some people who are the right ones to be in the room.

The reason we don’t hear about them, if they exist, is because it is not safe to go public. No one has created a safe, mediated space – and few adherents are willing to publicly honor those with opposing views with credibility. It is surely not happening on the overt political level. I may have strong opinions about whose fault that is, but, no matter, it isn’t happening on the leadership level – and without that it will never happen on the ground.

Is there hope or have we become a nation on the brink? History gives mixed messages. We should never forget what George Mitchell always would remind naysayers as he mediated an end to the hostilities in Ireland. “Everyday is a failure until the day that it isn’t.” And one day he succeeded. On the other hand, sadly, there are a lot of failed empires strewn along the highway of history, those who believed in their own uniqueness or invincibility or even divine selection.

Perhaps my colleague is correct in looking to the interreligious realm to provide a key. Can there be a more powerful statement of transcendent transformation than Vatican II’s famous Nostra Aetate? Written and affirmed in the mid-60’s, it reversed 1800 years of Church teaching toward and about “the other.” One day other religions were to be condemned, vilified, and proselytized; the next day they were authentic, legitimated, and respected. Sure, 50+ years later there are still too many who are unaware or skeptical, but acceptance of “the other” is Catholic Doctrine, and that has been affirmed vocally and forcefully by every Pope since. I have personally been present at three of those. [The influences that led to that statement have been the subject of many books and analyses, and there are significant nuances to how the Church got there and what it means for Roman Catholics. This is not the place to rehearse them; rather I refer to it as an example of how presumably irreconcilable ideologies can be bridged – even against all odds.]

This modest hopefulness should also lead to a mandate to our philanthropy world. Our work depends on the viability of civil society. Voluntarism, in any of the 3 W’s – work, wealth, or wisdom – requires that there are safe spaces for improving and influencing society. It means that there can be a decision to act for immediacy, or with a long-time perspective. It means that the organizations we fund can be free to implement the missions we support. It means that continued learning, genuine empowerment, and respect for equity, in all of its connotations, are allowed, possible, and encouraged. And it, therefore, means that we have a great deal at stake in becoming active advocates for the health and security of that sector and of civil society writ large.

It also means that our own behaviors matter. There is now an active discussion about whether there is legitimacy to our work since it is, no matter how one slices it, based on privilege and power. One can mediate and moderate them. One can share them. One can learn from them. But as long as private philanthropy exists one must acknowledge the endemic nature of privilege and power. And if that is the case, we must model how civil society can work even with that imbalance. It does not mean that we have to be perfect. As we know, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” If we hold out for the absolute or pure, we will become paralyzed by the disputes about what that must mean.

But model we must.

What many have learned in the last 4 months is that we as funders had typically been very slow to implement what it means to encourage and permit the trust that allows us to do what we want to do with our voluntary resources. If our systems, our affect, our expectations, and our decision making are, at the end of the day, patronizing, judgmental, restrictive, and self-serving, no matter how much lip service we give to respecting our grantee “partners”, they always know who has control.

Many [it isn’t yet clear what percentage of] funders have made modifications to significant elements of our funding processes in response to the Pandemic and to racial inequities. Many have eased reporting requirements, dropped project conditions, extended the length of grants, and more. Many have involved grantees and the directly impacted communities in decision making. It remains to be seen how many of these process changes will be lasting and how many funders will find it easy to revert to old ways of doing things whenever this period ends.

Some funders have chosen to give more and/or spend more of their endowments in the belief that, as some have said “this is the rainy day we have been saving for.” Here, too, it remains to be seen how sustained these spending and investment changes will be.

What does seem to be the most impenetrable barrier to change will be in the issue of governance. [I have written about this previously – please see #359, 26 Nov 2019] How many families will dilute their control of the family funded foundation with other stakeholders to the degree that it is no longer controlled by the family? How many will choose to surrender their multigenerational legacy to the existential problems of today? How many will admit that power can distort both one’s own perceptions and how others relate to us?

This last stage is hard, and as I said, perhaps impenetrable. But if our experience is to be a paradigm it is where we need to be model for a divided society. Being wealthy is not a divine right anymore than being part of the underclass should be a permanent destiny. Our sector is not singlehandedly able to erase systemic inequity and racism, but we must model how to redress and acknowledge them – even at some cost to our own extensive power and wealth.

Trust is what allowed centuries of interreligious disputation to become interreligious amity. Trust is what can allow decades of funders and grantees seeing one another as “the other” to be transformed into a trust based mutual commitment to change. And without trust, that only those with the wealth and power can foster, it will never be possible to rebuild our broken society, correct our rigged system, and redress our deep inequities.

No. Philanthropy cannot do it alone, but we can surely model how to begin.

Funder Education Offerings

June 28th, 2020

Richard Marker

Here are several funder education offerings with which we are directly involved at this time. Please note that, for the first time, we are offering our own workshops. They are intended to be small seminar experiences.

The University of Pennsylvania Center for High Impact Philanthropy annual funder education course will be held fully online this year. This high-end course is exclusively for Principals, Trustees, and/or chief professional decision makers and attracts funders from around the world. IF a consultant is playing the role equivalent to chief professional officer, s/he is eligible.

For more info:

Contact: [email protected]

The Institute for Wise Philanthropy has been educating funders since 2002, either under the auspices of NYU and UPenn, or under contract by foundations, financial service firms, and associations. Thousands of staff, principals, and trustees from foundations large and small from 40 countries have participated in these courses. Now, for the first time, the Institute will be offering seminars under our own label. The first offerings are listed below:

Each of these workshops will be limited to 6 funders from anywhere in the world. The times will be set in consultation with the registrants.

Philanthro-ethics and Equity: Racial, gender, class, and financial justice are the driving questions in our field at this time. This highly interactive workshop, which has been a key offering of our curricula for many years, offers a series of regularly updated proprietary scenarios and case studies that address these and other related issues. They help funders clarify the differences between law, ethics, and best practices, and enables an informed conscious use of self as funders deal with best practices for their own funding practices and their relationship with grantees.

2 half-day sessions: $600/registrant. $500 for members of WRAG, Exponent Philanthropy, WINGS, and NNCG.

Collaborations, Partnerships, Mergers: Collaborations as a funding approach are hot, and can provide a much-needed method to address both local and systemic challenges. Too often, though, that they don’t always work as intended, and some funders become disillusioned. This workshop will describe different types of collaborations and partnerships, and will provide information on what should be decided before entering into any such arrangements, what the differences are between types of collaborations, who or which foundations are not suited to be a partner, what kinds of governance arrangements apply when, and what are the most viable exit strategies. Over the last 15 years, the material in this workshop have been the most requested in our entire repertoire of funder education documents.

1 3-hour session: $350/registrant. $300 for members of WRAG, Exponent Philanthropy, WINGS, and NNCG.

Strategy Process vs Strategic Plans: Why do so many strategic plans gather dust on a shelf or are out of date the moment they are completed? We think it is because they start in the wrong place, and don’t adequately address implementation. This distinct model developed exclusively for funders turns the standard strategy process upside down – beginning with a “deep-dive” into individual and organizational culture and ending with an articulation of “mission/vision.” The approach is now utilized by many consultants, firms, and foundations. Invariably this unit is rated the most mind-changing take-away of our multi-day training programs.

1 3-hour session: $350/registrant. $300 for members of WRAG, Exponent Philanthropy, WINGS, and NNCG.

Among the future offerings will include sessions on Whose Money Is it? Do laws and ethics diverge?; Evaluation Methods; Policy Setting; Exit Strategies; Changing Roles for Philanthropy – How should funders respond.

#387 The Right Side of History – A Juneteenth Posting

June 19th, 2020

Richard Marker

Please read #383 “I Have Failed…” and #386 “Black Lives Certainly Matter…” prior to reading this.

In the previous post [#386], I referenced my time in Chicago. It reminded me of a lesson I learned in a totally unrelated context, but one which is very relevant at this time in US history.

First the context: During the 13 years I lived in Chicago, I had a number of executive roles. Because of the peculiar nature of the governance and funding systems, one might understand those roles as a series of concentric circles. The details don’t matter for this piece but suffice it to say that one of those roles was CEO of a local system with a primary funding entity, and others were regional, national, and international.

The funding agency was [and I assume still is] considered one of the major influential ones in the country. No national initiative would ever be adopted without their endorsement. Because of my roles outside of Chicago, I was frequently involved in those national initiatives, and I was often called upon to run it up the flagpole in Chicago.

The CEO of the Chicago entity didn’t suffer fools gladly and had little patience for ideas that were a waste of his time and communal money. [For some reason, he never considered me one of the fools, so he was willing to suffer me even when we didn’t agree. Go figure.] The path to communal endorsement and funding always went directly through his corner office.

As I recall, there was not a single national initiative about which he didn’t have reservations, some major and some less so. Many of his concerns were directly on point and led to modifications. But in every case where it mattered, even when he demurred on details, at the end of the day he would tell me that they would be supportive: “we have to be on the right side of history” he would say.

This is such a moment in America. The choices we must make every day – up until and after the November election are not simply for the soul of America, but for its very legitimacy. There is a person in the seat of the POTUS who considers himself above the law, considers that the Constitution is, at best, a document to be ignored, endorses racism overtly, and considers that anyone who opposes him to be a traitor. And there are those, particularly in the Senate, who act as if they fully agree.

I suspect that there are very few readers of my articles who disagree with this assessment, but I am not so naïve to think that everyone else does. However, I am most concerned about those who express reservations about their options even if they don’t disagree with my assessment of the POTUS.

• There are those who are disappointed that Biden will be the Democratic nominee since their preferred candidates have not been chosen or their positions seem not as central to his candidacy.

• There are those who say that there are some visible advocates of BLM who have said things they disagree with so they can’t really support the movement.

• There are those who say that “defunding the police” is a step too far and they cannot fully support that movement – in most cases rejecting the slogan more than the substance which they, conveniently, never examine.

• There are those whose disillusionment about the possibility of change is so great that they view all politics as more of the same no matter who is running or who is in power.

Yes, there are all sorts of excuses why one might be a cynic or a skeptic, most of which are quite legitimate. Some of these folks plan to sit it out. To every one of them I say, whatever reservations you may have, if you allow that to get you to sit this election season out, you are on the wrong side of history.

I have another concern as well: right now, there is a lot of very healthy energy, real policy discussions, and the emergence of functioning coalitions. The convergence of COVID-19 and the long overdue attention to the impact of endemic racism in America has fostered this. However, November is still 5 months away and it is very hard to sustain popular political activism for that long a time. I worry that there will be burnout; there will be political disappointments; there will be foreign interference via social media; there will be attempts to turn emerging allies into competitors. There might be rain – or crowds. But we must resist every one of these excuses.

At a minimum, vote. A few contributions to key competitive elections and activist organizations wouldn’t hurt. Canvassing [whatever that might look like this year] would certainly help. Volunteering on the local, county, and state level would make a big difference. Convincing your reticent friends, family, neighbors, colleagues to vote will go a long way.

It is not an overstatement that this year’s elections are the most important in any of our lifetimes. Nothing less than the continued legitimacy of the United States as a viable Constitutional Democracy is at stake.

We must keep up the momentum. We must remember that the perfect is the enemy of the good. We must remember that our votes and our involvement matter. History will judge the American experiment by how we respond this November, and every day before and after. This is the right time to be on the right side of history.

#386 Black Lives Certainly Matter: Why, then, did these 2 people give me pause?

June 16th, 2020

Richard Marker

A few years ago, when the Black Lives Matter movement first arose, it was not uncommon to hear a rebuttal – “but don’t all lives matter?”

Most of those who responded that way were simply being dismissive [that is the most generous way to put it.]. However, some folks I respected really needed an explanation. They had been on the right side of activism and associations, and the last thing they could imagine about themselves is that they were participating in or affirming racism. Their genuine views were built on the concept that a society needs to be built around a vision that all are equal, have equal access, and equal opportunity. Their well-meaning but naïve response was neither malicious nor mal-intended.

Most of these folks got it after it was explained to them why the phrase mattered and, regrettably, needed affirmation from all of us.

It is now several years later, and the BLM movement has expanded – for terrible reasons. There are lots of articles and analyses about why now but suffice it to say that it isn’t hard to understand why we who are White once again need to affirm the message. Nowadays, when we hear the same rebuttal about “all lives matter” it might mean that one is genuinely clueless and doesn’t accept the truth of endemic racism in America. Worse, some don’t really believe that all lives do matter – that only White ones should. I have very little patience for either of those perspectives.

I was, though, caught short in hearing two people comment about how it made them feel. One was a First Nation/Native American and one was the child of Holocaust survivors. In each case, they wondered why their historic anguish wasn’t being recognized or, they felt, was being implicitly dismissed. Neither in any way tried to belittle the legitimacy of the BLM Movement, nor deny that it was way overdue. Their point was that they looked at their own history of delegitimization, of legal and illegal discrimination, of the death sentence that too often accompanied their ancestors, even their own personal experiences, and how easy it still seems for much of the US to not take their histories as seriously as they now seem to be taking the travails of Blacks. Their concern, separately articulated, was that as America confronts its shocking and shameful history of anti-Black racism and racist behavior, that their own narratives will be lost, and America’s empathy quotient will be used up.

Now – so that no one, absolutely no one, misreads what I am writing here – let me be explicit: this is the time for the message of BLM – it should not be diluted, delayed, or discounted. American accountability is long overdue and practices and policies that have allowed racism should be changed – yesterday. No one needs to make excuses for the profoundly effective and moving protests seen around the world, and no one needs to apologize for saying that this is the time.

If one looks at history, though, the concerns of these two are not misplaced. America’s shameful past toward First Nation/Native Americans must never be allowed to be ignored. And the resurgence of anti-Semitic acts in the USA accompanied by a frightening skepticism that there were really 6 million Jewish victims of Nazism demonstrates that the work is far from done. How does one honor those very legitimate concerns – especially as we look to what we want in the future?

When I lived in Chicago in the 80’s and early 90’s, I had the honor of being involved in a Foundation funded by the Chicago Community Trust charged with addressing intergroup understanding. One of my volunteer/leadership roles was to co-facilitate these interactions among young adults from many different religious, ethnic, and racial backgrounds. The experiences were instructive: when groups first got together, their first instinct was to view their own group’s histories in competitive terms: How many were enslaved? How many were displaced? How many were massacred? How prevalent is bigotry toward…?

That approach proved untenable as a way forward. Is there really a hierarchy of bigotry and suffering? Is that a viable or even an ethical way to have an intergroup conversation?

After a while, we developed an alternative approach: what experiences made each group and each individual feel vulnerable, fearful, or misunderstood? No one was dismissive of those feelings since they were so clearly genuine. They weren’t quantifiable. Sharing why they felt those fears led to both empathy and understanding.

However, something happened during those conversations that anticipated today in remarkably and sadly prescient ways. In every conversation, by the end, the sense was that the most vulnerable group was young adult black men. In group after group, we heard black males tell of walking down the street and watching people quickly cross the street to avoid them; we heard of being stopped by police for no reason, or being tailed by clerks in stores, or seeing people clutch their purses or briefcases on busses – or choose less desirable seats to avoid sitting next to them. Every single person who was not a young black male nodded in recognition – in every single session.

I confess I have no recollection whatsoever if we then had the data to confirm what we all now know to be statistically true: the inordinate number of deaths and incarcerations among this population. The real-life experience of being a young black male, of any young black male, is only confirmed by that data, but it was evident even then.

Those sessions led to profoundly greater mutual understanding and empathy. Once we shifted the conversation from “my pain is greater than your pain” to “let’s acknowledge that we all have reason to feel vulnerable” both the character of the sessions changed, and the mutuality of respect grew palpably.

However, what didn’t change was the facts. All of those legitimate vulnerabilities continue today, and given the current ethos and political environment fostered by the Administration, other groups can easily be added to those who met in Chicago 30+ years ago, and make a case for their own victimization and vulnerability. But young black males are still being targeted, victimized, incarcerated, brutalized, and murdered.

We learned in those gathering that one can transfer fear of the other to empathy. As we [hopefully] construct a more just society going forward, that message must prevail. And of course, it must apply to all who feel vulnerable. But even then the message was loud, clear, and poignant even if we didn’t yet have these words to tell us: Black Lives Matter.

#385 – I’m Not Traveling; Why Should my Money? The Surprising COVID-19 and Racial Inequity Dilemmas for Funders

June 15th, 2020

Richard Marker

NB: This was written but not published prior to last week’s announcement by 5 major foundations of issuing debt as a way to get more money to the field. In many ways, that extraordinary development only underscores the dilemma discussed here.

As you may recall, when the COVID-19 quarantine began, I extended an offer to any funder anywhere to provide a pro-bono problem solving session. This post in an extrapolation of some underlying themes that I have gathered from those conversations and from the slew of many articles on funding choices at this time.

What has emerged for me is an interesting challenge from funders of less than mega-means. Choosing where to put funds comes down to hard choices, and those who fund on the local level/place based, are particularly sensitive to the implications of saying yes and no. Yet over the last few years, many of those funders became aware of the need to address systemic issues and were more open to funding national initiatives, sometimes at the expense of place-based funding. [Please see #293, 27 Dec 2017 and #337, 26 May 2019 regarding the significant continuing role for place-based funding, even when a funder is fully aware that the local organizations being funded can never aspire to the excellence of world-renowned organizations in the same fields.]

I cannot imagine that any funder or foundation is unaware of the financial challenges facing all non-profits, and the catastrophic challenges facing some. [I recommend the very recent survey published just this week by CEP on the unevenness of funding at this time.] Surely all funders know that their long-time grantees are in need. And, hopefully, every funder is aware of at least one local collaboration to address the massive local needs – even if that hasn’t previously been a core priority.

Moreover, it has been gratifying to see that hundreds upon hundreds of funders are learning that this is not a time for complex reviews, clever new initiatives, and burdensome reporting. It seems from the data that I have seen reported by others and anecdotal [no claim that it is scientific] evidence, most funders have either sent more money out the door, plan to spend more this year, or have committed themselves to funding new or ongoing needs in the next grant cycle.

Most of this is local.

At the same time, never has the need for systemic redress been more glaring. The funding community had been coming around to understand that band-aid type funding of societal needs of all sorts is far too short-term and nearsighted. Acknowledgement of the role of advocacy, providing support for national organizations addressing systemic issues, and seeing how existing funding aligns with underlying systemic needs has finally been high on the agenda. Both the pandemic and the BLM moment have starkly underscored the validity of those needs.

However, I am hearing, given how massive the local needs are, how can one justify diverting resources from “here” to “there”? Shouldn’t that be the job of the deepest pocketed funders whose focus is rarely place-based directed? Even if “woke” to the needs, perhaps this is the time to pull back from those national initiatives to focus on this place? After all, the putative systemic issues are visible right here – on our streets, in our schools, in our neighborhoods, in our policing, in our healthcare, in our workplaces.

I don’t disagree with the logic of this thinking, and for many it is a very valid way to go. But I also want to remind of the importance of not losing a connection with the groups with a larger and summative perspective, whose expertise allows alignment between current urgent need and optimal policy so that local funders don’t inadvertently reinforce counterproductive systemic causes, whose analyses of experiences elsewhere might provide a more laser focused use of local funds, and whose understanding of the political landscape might provide leadership in much needed policy reform.

Perhaps a single example will illustrate – and please excuse that this is a summary that elides some important local details: A couple of years ago, not long after we moved to the DC area, the government was shutdown for an extended period of time. The shutdown was felt throughout the country but, not surprisingly, hit the DC area hardest. Many in the local funding community stepped up with a variety of palliatives to alleviate very real hardships faced by many thousands of furloughed government employees and contractors. When the government re-opened, a meeting of many locally based funders was convened to address lessons learned. At the meeting, I [still a newcomer] asked if there had been any conversation with or utilization of material prepared by the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. To my surprise, no one in the room had heard of the CDP. As the local funders listed all the things they had learned and their commitment to document those learnings, it struck me that they had spent a long time largely reinventing the wheel – when, in fact, they could easily have adapted many of CDP learnings from many other natural and human-caused disruptions.

It is true, of course, that all politics is local – and most funding for many funders is and should be local. But just as local politics does not and cannot address systemic issues without national policy change, so too local place-based funding without a connection to the larger context in which we operate is insufficient.

Many of us would like to hope that the societal lacunae exposed by COVID-19 and by endemic racism will make this the time to finally address the systemic in real and transformative ways. So, while we absolutely must increase our support for and engagement with our local communities, we do need, as well, not to lose sight of the knowledge and wisdom that can come from continued engagement with organizations and affinity groups that extend beyond our own backyards. It need not be “either/or” but should be “both/and”.

#384 “Just Following Orders”

June 9th, 2020

Richard Marker

“We were just following orders”, said the Buffalo police caught on camera purposely and aggressively harming an elderly gentleman, and then simply walking away from him even though his injuries were apparent immediately. Worse, when they were held accountable, their entire unit chose to support them with the same defense.

This piece expands on comments on a recent VLOG. That piece predated this incident. It was recorded at the beginning of the protests, demonstrations, and marches – and in response to police behaviors to that and leading up to them.

In that VLOG, I spoke of the evident absence of ethics and social justice training for our police forces in the USA. Were that training to be the norm, the abundance of police brutality and murder cases might well be far fewer. Officers would not only know what not to do, but, as important, other officers would be empowered to stop those who violated those behaviors.

I also mentioned, as but one example, the training that every student and all military in Germany are required to have – to understand that there are human behaviors, ethics, and norms that rise above “orders.” A law which is unethical must be ignored. An order that is a violation of rights must be resisted. [I am not idealizing Germany – we know that racism, nativism, and xenophobia exist there too, but those educated in Germany are explicitly taught the difference.]

West Germany instituted that systemic standard in response to the lessons of Nazism. The Nuremburg trials made clear that “just following orders” was not a sufficient defense of crimes against humanity or any other ethical violation. If you violated those laws, you were not protected by a “following orders” defense; you were culpable because there can never be a legitimate order to violate human rights. In the contest between authority and humanity, humanity must win.

It troubled me to hear those words from the Buffalo police, but it underscored for me what we must be addressing as we hear arguments to “defund the police.” If we mean by that the de-militarizing of local police forces, I am all for that. If we mean to radically reform our shocking incarceration system and no longer permit for-profit prisons, I am all for that. Yes, there is much more to change that could and would be brought about by de-funding some of what we mean by policing.

I spent time this weekend reading a great deal about the many different defunding proposals and many are very worthwhile. With political will and wisdom, some of these changes will become the norm. But a couple of cautions that occurred to me as I read. There will inevitably be some sort of policing. It would be terrible public policy to privatize policing as a result even though I suspect that there are those who are already salivating at the opportunity to financially benefit – as some have done with private prisons. And while neighborhood involvement is indispensable, we want to make sure that neighborhood empowerment does not lead to unaccountable vigilantes.

Which brings me back to the primary point of this piece: accountability and underlying values.

Toward the end of a most shattering week, key military leaders stood up to the POTUS’ proposed misuse and abuse of our military to quell peaceful protests. Their outspoken defense of Constitutional mandates, and the clear limits of the role of the military in domestic issues were welcome indeed. [Would that some in the Senate had been willing to affirm that they understood the Constitution over the last 3 tumultuous years!]

What has emerged too often during this embarrassing three years in American history is that there are those so afraid to not follow orders, even if it means violating the law, ethics, or human decency, that we have inched too close to authoritarianism. It appears that too many elected officials, too many in police departments, and too many citizens have not been taught or never absorbed the lessons of the limits of authority and the primacy of ethical standards over abuse of power.

Going forward, whatever policing system emerges, whoever gets elected to any office, and whoever is involved in any way in our justice system must participate in and be judged on an understanding of when authority must be rejected and when orders must not be followed. This alone will not guarantee the elimination of police brutality, nor will it eradicate shameful racism, nor will it rid us of deep-seated xenophobic attitudes. Much more needs to be done to re-set our national moral compass.

But it is a start. One would hope that we never again hear the plea after clear abuses of human persons or their rights: “we were only following orders.”

#383 – I Have Failed! A Personal Response to our National Disgrace

June 4th, 2020

Richard Marker

I have failed. Make no mistake. In what ways? Let’s look:

• The USA has not taken climate change seriously.
• The USA has not adequately addressed its endemic racism.
• The USA has enabled the greatest disparity between rich and poor in modern history.
• The USA has refused to accept that the right of women to control their own bodies should not be negotiable.
• The USA has valued gun ownership above support for education leaving a generation under-informed about history, the world, science, and so much more.
• The USA’s delusion of its own exceptionalism has reinforced self-destructive isolationism.
• The USA’s persistent and recurring xenophobia has distorted human interaction, civil society, and the respect for civil liberties.
• The USA congratulates itself on it being the land of opportunity while embedding economic classism more deeply than ever before.
• The USA, alone among industrialized societies, refuses to grant health care, childcare, and elder care to all of its citizens.
• The USA has the most misanthropic anti-Constitutional POTUS in its history.

Is this enough? It is a litany of failure.

Last week, a colleague challenged a group of us. All the evidence you need that we haven’t done enough, he said, is to look at the facts. The last 3 months have underscored the fragility of our health system and the financial well-being of millions of citizens – through no fault of their own. The last week alone has underscored the depth of our systemic and cultural racism. There have been all too many other recent examples that underscored every single item on the list.

Yes, I have failed.

Yesterday, I attended one of the most moving protest gatherings I have ever attended. It was right here in Bethesda and it was organized exclusively by high school students. Since the mid-60’s, I have attended countless numbers of protests, marches, rallies, sit-ins, teach-ins, and vigils. Most mattered; some were moving. None moved me as much as this one.

Here, in the privileged alcove of Bethesda, a bastion of presumed upscale liberalism, we listened to personal narratives of racism experienced by teenagers of color – in their lives, in their schools, by their families – in this community. One speech was read by a proxy for a student who feared for her life if she attended. Others told of dismissive attitudes by teachers, administrators, fellow students… to say nothing of graffiti and words and implicit discrimination. Right here in Bethesda.

The teenagers organized their rally to support each other – never imagining that many hundreds of us would join them; the crowd extended for several blocks. [There is a photo by a tv station showing one older bald white guy in a blue blazer sitting surrounded by several hundred teens. I wonder who that old white guy might be? For readers who might not know what I look like, I happen to fit that description.] Before beginning, the teens demanded that we all “social distance”, wear masks, and pledge to participate peacefully.

What got me, what made me weep behind my COVID-19 mask, was when a few student speakers spoke of their grandparents marching for racial justice in the 60’s when they were high school students themselves. I am older than those grandparents! Over 50 years later, we are still here. Yes, I have failed.

But, you might ask, “why do you keep saying ‘I’?” Shouldn’t you be saying “We have failed?” There are even a small number of readers who have known me long enough to say: “What about when you did this?” Or “preached that?” Or “went to the line for…?” Or called out that racist comment? Why put myself down if, perhaps, I have may have done more than some others?

And that may be true. However, this “I’ is not some hubris driven belief that I could have changed anything in that list alone. It required and still requires many to be addressing them together. But “we” is a collection of “I”s and the “we” only works when each of us, individually, accepts the burden of what each of us can do. “We” simply means we do those things with a commonly felt mission.

Also, if I am being honest, whatever I have may have done, however worthy it might have been, is less than I could have done. I may have been too reticent to speak as forcefully as I should have when I was still a person of some influence. I may have not been as visible in settings where it might have made more of a difference. I may have under-supported the social justice initiatives that have been fighting this systemic fight for much too long. I daresay most of them have no idea that I am a fellow traveler.

Yesterday’s teen led gathering left me shaken. What have we wrought that our grandchildren must experience this sense of abandonment, of fear, of suspicion, of challenge? After all, over the last several years as I settled into my mid-70’s, my apologia pro vita mea has been: “with experience comes sagacity”. It seems to be true in the philanthropy world where I have spent the last half of my career. It seems to be true in the international interreligious realm where I am still privileged to be treated like a respected elder.

Make no mistake, though, It surely is not true in knowing what to say or advise young people who are on the cusp of young adulthood looking to create a world that overcomes the failures our generation has left for them.

Yes, we have failed them. And, since, as I said above, every “we” is a collection of “I”s, it is not hyperbole to say, “I have failed.”

I and we must assure that the sad legacy of racism, misogyny, inequities, and the other cancerous and destructive failures of our society end. These young people deserve no less. If we succeed, the next generations won’t have to look back at us and wonder where we have been, or 50 years hence, have to weep as another generation painfully asks “why.”

#379 – Post COVID-19: The Future of Funder Education

May 20th, 2020

Richard Marker

Full disclosure: As discussed below, we have been educating philanthropists, families, and other funders in many settings and under many different sponsorships since 2000. Until now we have resisted suggestions to offer funder education courses or seminars directly through our Institute for Wise Philanthropy. For the first time, we are seriously contemplating offering limited-attendance on-line workshops. This post shares some of our thinking as we move ahead with our planning. To be clear: these webinar/workshops are not intended to supplant the superb funder education program at the University of Pennsylvania Center for High Impact Philanthropy with which we are delighted to be connected. However, that program is restricted to principals, trustees, or chief professional decision makers of grantmakng institutions. For all other funders, please keep in touch and watch for our offerings.

Between zooming and cooking, there is still a lot of time to write and think these days. Thank you to so many of you who have commented both publicly and privately on my numerous posts on various media regarding funders’ roles now and in the “next normal” period. There are many more pressing issues at this moment in time than how one educates those who give money, but it is how I have spent a good chunk of my professional life over the last 20 years so it shouldn’t be too surprising that it has been on my mind during the last couple of months.

To remind readers who may not be familiar: Since the foundation I was heading closed in 2002, I have chosen to spend a good deal of time responding to requests to offer workshops and courses for families, philanthropists, and foundations in many places around the world. Some of those have been at NYU and UPenn, some for associations and what are now called Philanthropy Support Organizations, and some for individual funders and foundations.

When I first started doing this in a formal way, not wanting to develop a top down curriculum, I consulted with the organizations most prevalent in our field at the time: the Council on Foundations, the Association of Small Foundations [now Exponent Philanthropy], the National Center for Family Philanthropy, and the Forum on Regional Grantmakers [now the United Philanthropy Forum.] The courses were then jointly conceptualized by what was then known as the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers [now PhilanthropyNY.]. I asked them all one simple question: “What should a funder know?”

There was so much alignment in their answers that it was relatively easy to create a curriculum based on consensus “core competencies” of grantmaking. As the world and our field have evolved over the years, the curriculum has been updated regularly, but the basic concepts and structure have remained viable and vital. I am proud to say that several thousand funders around the world have been direct beneficiaries of that model. Further, it significantly informed my own boutique “philanthropy advisory” model, and it is the underpinning of my quite extensive international speaking.

Until now.

1. Curriculum.
So much has been called into question over the last couple of months, it is forcing me to think about what philanthropy education for funders should look like in the “next normal.” Has this fine-tuned and well-tested curriculum become too dated for funders who have been rethinking strategies, changing ways of relating to their communities and grantees, accepting the overwhelming reality of the systemic disconnects and need for public advocacy, and even what it means for us to have independent and autonomous decision making about where our public benefit resources should be spent? Or, conversely, has all of this reinforced the value of such a structured, sequential, and carefully considered curriculum as a basis for knowing how to make the hard decisions with which we are all faced?

2. Medium:
A lesser but no less challenging question is what the optimal viable medium for this kind of education should now be. 100% of what I have done until now has been predicated on “in-person.” The occasional webinars I have presented have all been for groups where everyone knew each other and had prior in-person experiences. Group learning among funders with an educator in the room, is very different than a group of pictures on a screen with an active chat button. Philanthropy education for funders, built around the core competencies mentioned above, has been most credible when a funder hears the questions other funders are asking, what challenges they face, how they respond to the same sets of questions. And what about confidentiality? Funders want to talk in safe, discreet, and confidential spaces. [see #3b below]. Have we developed sufficient confidence in newer media that this discretion can comfortably migrate – or would it, ipso facto, be one of the inevitable losses that would accrue to accepting fully on-line courses?

3. Educators and Students:
Moreover, given emerging issues identified by such initiatives as “Participatory Budgeting”, “Trust Based Philanthropy”, DEI practices, etc., not only must we examine the content of the curriculum but also both who should be imparting knowledge and who should be in the room.

a. Who should teach:
On the whole, our field has relied on funders to teach funders. To be sure, not every funder is a good educator – something that anyone who has attended sessions at philanthropy conferences can attest. However, a good educator who is a funder with multiple experiences has a much deeper internal data base to respond to the realities of other funders. As our field has become more diverse and the relevant experiences and values are expanded, it raises the expectations of what the content should be and the challenges of determining who should provide it. This issue is probably the easier of the two challenges to address. After all, over the years, we have readily added issues of equity in both our philanthro-ethics and in our strategy units. And there is a long history of inviting co-presenters with a variety of backgrounds and expertise to be co-educators, many of whom reflected much of the now-current diversity lens.

b. Who should be in the room:
The question of whom we should invite/permit into the funder education room is far more complicated. All of us on the funder side are well aware of being “walking dollar signs.” There are few places we can enter without being solicited. Over the years of teaching funders, I am consistently asked to guarantee that no one hoping to raise or manage funds will be there, and every philanthropy conference requires a similar commitment from all attendees and speakers. Sadly, that concern is not ill-founded; I have seen it abused when the participation rules have been loosened or when someone simply cannot resist the temptation to sell to wealthy funders. Yet if we are now talking about developing a new relationship between funders and nonprofits, if we take seriously the “nothing about us without us” mantra, if we believe that our advocacy requires a full mutuality, is the implication that we need to develop a new model that removes the divide and invites funders and the npo/ngo side of the sector together? Or would the funder community consider that a step too far? Is there a way to have separate education for funders precede subsequent joint learning?

4. Systemic Change.

The final question has to do with the centrality of systemic change as a new primary essential core competence. We have always underscored that understanding the interconnection between public policy and private philanthropy is a sine qua non for contextualizing where our field is and where it has come from. Once aware, we have felt, it would be hard to make a grant, any grant, without thinking about what its relationship to existing or preferred public policy. Is it better to support that local food pantry or support advocacy for increased SNAP funding? Or both? Is it better to fund that in-school arts project or to advocate for the restoration of those funds? Or both? You understand.

But COVID-19 has laid bare the scope of systemic dysfunction that leads to food insecurity, fiscal uncertainty, health-care vulnerability, the fragility of our cultural institutions, and yes, instability of our civil liberties and civil society. It is one thing to make sure that funders know of the legitimacy of advocacy funding; that is something we have taught all along. Perhaps, though, we must now say that any philanthropy education that doesn’t start with the centrality of our role in addressing systemic questions is insufficient and doesn’t fully acknowledge our unique role.
There are a lot of changes that await us as we delicately and thoughtfully move into a “next normal.” Those changes do and will touch every part of our lives. If there has ever been a time when our philanthropy work matters, it is now. It matters best when that work is informed by a deep and profound understanding of what our roles should be and how we can best play those roles. We have endorsed that mandate for a long time. Looking at the “next normal,” it would be irresponsible for those of us who are philanthropy educators to avoid the serious discussion about what a funder should know now.

Especially now.

Dear reader: Your thoughts and reactions will certainly inform both our continuing work and our new offerings going forward. I urge you to share them with us and your colleagues.